Vantage point

Monday, October 26, 2009

On Raj Thackeray

I just read Shobbbhaaa Daey's (or however she is spelling her name now) open letter to Raj Thackeray.

And it spurred me to write something I have been thinking about for a while. As a marathi-speaking Maharashtrian who disagrees with almost everything Raj Thackeray says and stands for, I am surprised to find myself sympathizing with him for being misrepresented by the national media. Not that Raj minds it. I am pretty sure he does not. In fact, I am sure he relishes in how the national media is playing into his hands by demonizing him. It has given him the attention and mindshare he was struggling to gain in the first couple of years after leaving the Shiv Sena. The problem with the national media is that they just focus on a few sound bytes and twitter-length talking points, and often tend to talk past Raj. Like Shobha De has done above, they raise and ask questions that he has already addressed. Read or watch his interviews after the election, and he has addressed quite a few points raised by her.

It's not that Raj is not wrong. Of course he is. But the media never goes down to the granularity of the points he raises and instead goes after him with a hammer, when a scalpel would be much more appropriate. They don't exactly build a strawman, but take a legitimate target and dump so much straw over it gratuitously that the original point gets lost. What that does is, gives him lots and lots of material (and watch any rally or speech by him and you'll see how he comes equipped with printouts and citations) to go to his base and say - see, these national media people are misrepresenting me and demonizing me and are anti-marathi-manoos.

Take for instance the whole "anti-outsider" thing. Listen to his speeches in marathi, and you will realize, he is not explicitly anti-outsider or even anti-North-Indian. He is anti-UP-Bihar. And there too, he is opposed to the hordes of uneducated homeless people that supposedly pour into the city, adding to the competition for jobs and burdening the infrastructure of the state. Not a position I agree with. But slightly more nuanced than the broad-brush way in which it has been painted by the national media. And that gives Raj fodder to complain. In one rally, he said to his supporters, he is not anti-North-Indian. North India also has Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Himachal, all states that have built their own economies and infrastructures. So he has no problem with people from those states coming to Maharashtra, because when they do, he says it is because of their unique skill or competence that helps Maharashtra. Those states don't send hordes of unqualified homeless people to Bombay. He said his problem is specifically with UP and Bihar. And then he said, let's see if a single national news media organization reports this. He claimed that they will still describe his speech as anti-outsider or anti-north-indian.

Raj Thackeray and the MNS is not good for Maharashtra politics. His divisive agenda is dangerous. And the election results show his appeal among voters is growing at an alarming pace. Which is why he must be tackled in the right way. Not in the sophomoric college-debate-ish way it is being done.

And the media's biggest fault has been to treat him like another Bal Thackeray. Sure, he wants to occupy the place Bal holds. And he wants that image. But believe you me, he is a lot more intelligent and articulate than Bal which makes him so much more dangerous. Much more dangerous because his appeal is spreading to marathi-speaking college-educated youths. Shiv Sena has always been a, well "subaltern" party. The MNS is going one step forward. And it is able to do so, because in his marathi speeches, between his explosive and provocative soundbytes that the national media focuses on, he talks a lot of substance. He crafts his arguments reasonably well, unlike Bal whose speeches were and are downright stupid. Raj's substance and arguments are still wrong, but they need to be addressed directly and intelligently by his opponents and critics, instead of calling him a frog, Hitler and so on.

An example of how he is way smarter than his uncle is how he chooses to speak only in marathi in interviews with the national media. Raj is no uneducated bumpkin. I have heard him speak english as well as hindi very fluently. But he knows that he can have maximum impact with rhetorical flourish in marathi. And even if he is being seen on a national channel, his core audience is marathi. So unlike Bal and Uddhav, who have given interviews in english and hindi in the past, and coming off looking like stuttering mumbling fools or nutcases, Raj has managed to hold his own against people like Rajdeep Sardesai. Just watch IBN's Thackeray-vs-Thackeray show on youtube, and the contrast between Raj and Uddhav can not be clearer.

Which is why Raj needs to be combated a lot more thoughtfully and substantively than his uncle or cousin. Sadly, I don't see that happening. The national media is happy focusing on a concise caricature of the man. Raj, fully aware of it, keeps pulling stunts and instances of gundagiri, to keep the national media distracted. And meanwhile, he speaks to his base in a different, more nuanced language. And his support grows.

We all thought that when Bal dies, the Shiv Sena and its divisive ideology will wither away soon. Not likely. In Raj's success I see the ominous portents of a political entity in Maharashtra that will make us pine for the Shiv Sena. Unless people start taking Raj well and truly "seriously".